The Academy Awards are just over a week away – Sunday, February 26th – and I am pleased to finally see some diversity among the nominees. After two years of #OscarsSoWhite we may perhaps be seeing a year of #OscarsMaybeNotSoWhite?
I want to focus specifically on “Hidden Figures” because I was thrilled, albeit surprised, to see it land on the Best Picture nomination list. Just about every Oscar predictions article I read labeled it a “long shot.”
“Hidden Figures” is also walking away with a Best Supporting Actress nod for Octavia Spencer and a nomination for Best Writing for an Adapted Screenplay. I’m happy with the recognition but still a bit puzzled as to why Taraji P. Henson didn’t get a Best Actress nomination.
“Fences” and “Moonlight,” two other movies that portray experiences faced by black Americans, won nominations for Best Film (and were never labeled long shots, I might add), but I want to focus specifically on “Hidden Figures” and explore the role that black women play in Hollywood.
When I saw “Hidden Figures” I was absolutely enthralled beginning to end. I rooted for Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson as they battled segregation, blatant racism and sexism in the early 1960s as they worked hard to make instrumental moves within NASA during the Space Race. I found myself enraged by the injustices they faced and riveted by their accomplishments. My eyes filled with tears when the closing credits showed an image of President Barack Obama awarding Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The magnitude of the title “Hidden Figures” is astounding.
I think the film accomplished what Director Theodore Melfi wanted. It was what America needed. The accomplishments of these three magnificent women has FINALLY been bought to the public eye. The film topped box offices for weeks. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson are, finally, no longer hidden figures.
But is the recognition of “Hidden Figures” and “Fences” and “Moonlight” enough? Furthermore, is it enough for black women?
When “Hidden Figures” first came out, I remember seeing a Facebook status that had gone viral saying something along the lines of: “It’s so nice to see a movie starring black women that aren’t slaves or maids.”
That hit me. Like damn, that is a true statement.
Then, while I was watching “Hidden Figures,” I was reminded of another sentiment I’d recently heard. It was from Ashley Black, a black female writer on the TV show, “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” On an episode about Black History Month, Ashley poked fun at white people and their affinity for civil rights era black people only: “That’s why I’m starting #blacknowmonth,” she said. “It’s where you stand up for black people, who are alive now in real life, and not just in your imagination of the 1960s.”
That hit me. Like damn, that is a true statement.
With those two sentiments in mind, I noticed a couple of things during “Hidden Figures.”
First, I don’t think the trailer did the film justice at all. I remember watching, completely astonished at the work Katherine Johnson was doing. It was not just helpful to NASA’s mission – as the trailer led us to believe – it was absolutely integral. We wouldn’t have the math to land a rocket ship without her. She INVENTED the math. Even if she hadn’t, the work she, Vaughn, and Jackson were doing at NASA was extraordinary and deserving of recognition, but holy hell, WHY ARE WE JUST NOW HEARING ABOUT THEM?
Second, I couldn’t help but notice that the three women in “Hidden Figures” were portrayed as squeaky clean. They were hardworking, smart, kind, modest, obedient, church-going moms in their acceptable 1960s fashions. And I’m sure they all three really did possess those characteristics. This characterization is not a flaw of the movie, but I wonder if it’s a flaw of Hollywood. Is this the only version of a black woman – aside from a slave or a maid – that mainstream America can handle?
For example, what if Katherine Johnson in “Hidden Figures” had not been a widow, but a divorcee? Would that have hurt her credibility as a mathemetitian we should admire?
I want to take a look at black Americans, specifically black women, as they have been portrayed in recently critically acclaimed films. For the sake of research, I’m going to call “recently critically acclaimed films” those that were nominated for Best Picture by the Academy Awards between 2008 and 2017.
Of the 80 films nominated over the course of these ten years, only 10 (arguably, 8) have a black American in the leading role. Thirteen (arguably 11) have a person of color in a leading role.
-Hidden Figures (2017)
-12 Years a Slave (2014)
-Django Unchained (2013)
-Beasts of the Southern Wild (2013)
-The Help (2012)*
*To say that the lead in “The Help” is a woman of color is a stretch. If you google “The cast of The Help,” the first name that pops up is Emma Stone. Same with “The Blindside.” Sandra Bullock comes up first as the lead.
We see that there is no black lead in the years 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2016. This is disgraceful.
Furthermore, there are only three films with a black female in the leading role: “Hidden Figures”, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, and “Precious.” Four, if you count “The Help.”
Looking back at the examples I named before where we’re often seeing black women portrayed as maids, slaves, or civil-rights era women, I think we can add a fourth category: impoverished homegirl.
Which begs the question: where are the middle- and upper-class black women? Do they even exist? Where are regular, everyday 21st century black women being portrayed? Furthermore, where are successful black women being portrayed?
Like why does there have to be some tragic story involved for us to care about black women?
Television shows like “Scandal”, “Empire”, and “Insecure” come to mind. Of course, Tyler Perry movies exist. But we simply are not seeing regular black women in our most highly praised feature length films.
When you look at films with a white woman in the lead that take place in modern day, they are often depicted as middle class and with a wide variety of problems. Examples include “Room”, “The Kids Are Alright”, “Philomena”, “Silver Linings Playbook”, “Black Swan”, and “Juno.” A notable exception is “Winter’s Bone” (a lower-class protagonist.) While the representation pales in comparison to that of movies featuring men’s issues, at least the characters in those films aren’t totally pigeonholed by four stereotypes.
If we take this another step back and just look at black women who have earned a Best Actress nomination in the last 10 years, things are even more bleak. (In fact, in 2011, all the Best Actress nominees were blonde.)
Black Women Who Have Been Nominated for Best Actress in the Last 10 Years:
Ruth Negga, “Loving” (2017)
Quvenzhané Wallis, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2013)
Viola Davis, “The Help” (2012)
Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious” (2010)
Now let’s look at Best Supporting Actresses.
Black Women Who Have Been Nominated for Best Supporting Actress in the Last 10 Years:
Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures” (2017)
Viola Davis, “Fences” (2017)
Naomie Harris, “Moonlight” (2017)
Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave” (2014)
Octavia Spencer, “The Help” (2012
Mo’Nique, “Precious” (2010)
Taraji P. Henson, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2009)
I feel like the trend we’re seeing here is “the less central the role, the more room we have for black women.”
In a Best Actress role there have been four. In a Best Supporting Actress role there have been seven. The intersection between a leading role for a black woman and a nomination for best actress, there are two: Quvenzhané Wallis and Gabourey Sidibe. Neither won the Oscar.
And, if I may, one is a child surviving Hurricane Katrina and the other is victim of absolutely heinous abuse with almost zero hope for improving her lot in life.
Why does there have to be a tragic story involved for us to care about black women?
And here again, we’re seeing black women typecast as slaves, maids, civil rights era heroines, or impoverished homegirls. There is more to the narrative of Black History than these four archetypes.
Maybe 2017 is the year of #OscarsMaybeNotSoWhite? but it’s clear that true representation has not been achieved.
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